Loretta Harrison welcomed the lunch crowd at her Friday fish fry with her usual cheery attitude.
"All right, dahlin'," she drawled, giving one diner an excited hug. "You're a valued customer."
Such scenes are common at Harrison's restaurant, a neighborhood gathering spot run by a woman who is a neighborhood treasure.
Harrison is best known for the candy business she started 30 years ago, but more recently, lunch at her corner restaurant on Rampart Street in Faubourg Marigny has become a tradition.
"Lunch isn't just about lunch; it's about the people who come," Harrison said of her decision to feed the masses.
"No way can you eat all this, but you're tempted," said Warner Tureaud, a retired policeman who sat behind a plate piled high with catfish and macaroni and cheese. He knew Harrison's mother when she used to make fresh pralines for passengers boarding the Delta Queen steamboat.
"You can get great food most anywhere in New Orleans, but the camaraderie and atmosphere are special," Tureaud said. "It's an opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones."
The tiny restaurant's walls are decorated with dancing cartoon pralines and Bible scriptures. "The Lord is My Helper and I will not Fear," one reads.
A small basket of cardboard rectangles printed with New Testament quotations are substituted for mints at the cash register. It's the sort of place that, despite the crowd it draws, has such a down-home feel that Harrison might give Tureaud a phone call if he hasn't come recently for lunch.
'It feels like home'
The lunch menu was born of a necessity to survive -- literally and figuratively -- after Hurricane Katrina.
"After Katrina, we had to reinvent ourselves by becoming versatile," Harrison said. Customers weren't ordering candy after the storm because they were grieving the loss of the city, but rescue workers and residents were cleaning up houses and needed a place to eat, she said.
"We had to stop making candy and make food," she said. The restaurant was a comforting oasis for the body and mind. When Loretta's quit serving daily lunch in 2006, customers protested, so Harrison kept it up, but just one day a week.
Capt. Bernadine Kelly, who leads the New Orleans Police Department's 5th District, is a regular customer who relishes the close-knit atmosphere. "When my sisters come to visit from out of town, we love to get together at Loretta's and share a home-cooked meal," she said. "It has a lot of sentimental value for us."
"It feels like home when you're coming here," Tyrese James said as he dived into a mound of catfish. "The food and hospitality are off the chain. She kisses you and greets you -- one kiss on each cheek -- like I'm a king."
A family affair
Harrison started making pralines from a family recipe when she worked as the night supervisor at the LSU medical library years ago. Making pralines by day, she brought them to medical students who were studying late.
"They needed something to keep them awake," she said.
They told her: "You need to get out of here, you're not a librarian." Candy-making and cooking, they said, is what she needed to do.
So that's what she decided to do.
Harrison raised three sons, Robert III, Roddrick and Kendrick, and a godson, Kendell, who all now work in the store. The youngest is a "taster," she said.
"They say it is a nice place to work to meet girls," Harrison said, adding that girls like sweets.
Until Katrina, Loretta's French Market booth provided two-thirds of her revenue. The candy business is still recovering, and steady gains have been made through faithful mail-order customers. A renovated spot in the market should also ensure tourists keep discovering her pralines.
Harrison credits her success to being blessed, but her fans also sing her praises.
Pete Ugulano, a plumber, once fixed a leak in Harrison's cookie carriage in Oakwood Mall years ago and has given his customers Loretta's gift baskets for Christmas ever since.
This time of year, he hears the same refrain echoed again and again: "Where are my pralines? Don't you forget them."
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Mary Rickard is a contributor to The Times-Picayune.